The First Bug On Mars

Interplanetary probes were a constant in the tech news bulletins of the 1960s and 1970s. The Space Race was at its height, and alongside their manned flights the two superpowers sent unmanned missions throughout the Solar System. By the 1980s and early 1990s the Space Race had cooled down, the bean counters moved in, and aside from the spectacular images of the planets periodically arriving from the Voyager series of craft there were scant pickings for the deep space enthusiast.

The launch in late 1996 of the Mars Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover then was exciting news indeed. Before Spirit, the exceptionally long-lived Opportunity, and the relatively huge Curiosity rover (get a sense of scale from our recent tour of JPL), the little Sojourner operated on the surface of the planet for 85 days, and proved the technology for the rovers that followed.

In these days of constant online information we’d see every nuance of the operation as it happened, but those of us watching with interest in 1997 missed one of the mission’s dramas. Pathfinder’s lander suffered what is being written up today as the first bug on Mars. When the lander collected Martian weather data, its computer would crash.

Like many other spacecraft, the lander’s computer system ran the real-time OS VxWorks. Of the threads running on the craft, the weather thread was a low priority, while the more important task of servicing its information bus was a high priority one. The weather task would hog the resources, causing the operating system equivalent of an unholy row in our Martian outpost. A priority inversion bug, and one that had been spotted before launch but assigned a low priority.

You can’t walk up to a computer on another planet and swap out a few disks, so the Pathfinder team had to investigate the problem on their Earthbound replica of the lander. The fix involved executing some C code on an interpreter prompt on the spacecraft itself, something that would give most engineers an extremely anxious moment.

The write-up is an interesting read, it’s a translation from a Russian original that is linked within it. If the work of the JPL scientists and engineers interests you, this talk from the recent Hackaday superconference might be of interest.

[via Hacker News]

HFSat and The All-HF Amateur Radio Satellite Transponder

One facet of the diverse pursuit that is amateur radio involves the use of amateur radio satellites. These have a long history stretching back to the years shortly after the first space launches, and have been launched as “piggy-back” craft using spare capacity on government and commercial launches.

Though a diverse range of payloads have been carried by these satellites over the years, the majority of amateur radio satellites have featured transponders working in the VHF and UHF spectrum. Most often their links have used the 2m (144 MHz) and 70cm (430MHz) bands. A few have had downlinks in the 10m (28MHz) band, but this has been as far as they have ventured into the HF spectrum.

A new cubesat designed and built by trainees at the US Naval Academy promises to change all that, because it will feature an all-HF transponder with a 15m (21MHz) uplink and a 10m downlink. To that end it will carry a full size 10m wire dipole antenna. The 30KHz wide transponder is an inverting design intended to cancel out the effects of Doppler shift. In their write-up they provide a fascinating description of many aspects of cubesat design, one which should be of significant interest beyond the world of amateur radio.

If the subject of amateur radio in space interests you, have a look at our series on the matter, first covering the OSCAR satellites, and then our recent feature on its use in manned missions.

[via Southgate ARC]

Basement 3D Printer Builds Are Too Easy. Try Building One on Mars.

[Tony Stark Elon Musk] envisions us sending one million people to Mars in your lifetime. Put aside the huge number or challenges in that goal — we’re going to need a lot of places to live. That’s a much harder problem than colonization where mature trees were already standing, begging to become planks in your one-room hut. Nope, we need to build with what’s already up there, and preferably in a way that prepares structures before their inhabitants arrive. NASA is on it, and by on it, we mean they need you to figure it out as part of their 3D Printed Hab Challenge.

The challenge started with a concept phase last year, awarding $25k to the winning team for a plan to use Martian ice as a building material for igloo-like habs that also filter out radiation. The top 30 entries were pretty interesting so check them out. But now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. How would any of these ideas actually be implemented? If you can figure that out, you can score $2M.

Official rules won’t be out until Friday, but we’d love to hear some outrageous theories on how to do this in the comments below. The whole thing reminds us of one of the [Brian Herbert]/[Kevin J. Anderson] Dune prequels where swarms of robot colonists crash-land on planets throughout the universe and immediately start pooping out building materials. Is a robot vanguard the true key to planet colonization, and how soon do you think we can make that happen? We’re still waiting for robot swarms to clean up our oceans. But hey, surely we can do both concurrently.

How To Hack A Spacecraft To Die Gracefully

Last week, the Rosetta spacecraft crashed into comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after orbiting it since 2014. It was supposed to do that: the mission was at an end, and the mission designers wanted to end it by getting a close look at the surface of the comet. But this raises an interesting problem: how do you get a device that is designed to never stop to actually stop?
Continue reading “How To Hack A Spacecraft To Die Gracefully”

Retrotechtacular: Power Driven Articulated Dummy

If any of you have ever made a piece of clothing, you’ll know some of the challenges involved. Ensuring a decent and comfortable fit for the wearer, because few real people conform exactly to commercial sizes. It’s as much a matter of style as it is of practicality, because while ill-fitting clothing might be a sartorial fail, it’s hardly serious.

When the piece of clothing is a space suit though, it is a different matter. You are not so much making a piece of clothing as a habitat, and one that will operate in an environment in which a quick change to slip into something more comfortable is not possible. If you get it wrong at best your astronaut will be uncomfortable and at worst their life could be threatened.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Power Driven Articulated Dummy”

Apollo: The Alignment Optical Telescope

The Apollo program is a constant reminder that we just don’t need so much to get the job done. Sure it’s easier with today’s tools, but hard work can do it too. [Bill Hammack] elaborates on one such piece of engineering: The Alignment Optical Telescope.

The telescope was used to find the position of the Lunar Module in space so that its guidance computer could do the calculations needed to bring the module home. It does this using techniques that we’ve been using for centuries on land and still use today in space; although now it’s done with computer vision. It was used to align the craft to the stars. NASA used stars as the fixed reference points for the coordinate system used to locate objects in space. But how was this accomplished with great precision?

The alignment optical telescope did this by measuring two unknowns needed by the guidance computer. The astronaut would find the first value by pointing the telescope in the general area necessary to establish a reading, then rotate the first reticle (a horizontal line) on the telescope until it touched the correct star. A ring assembly was then adjusted, moving an Archimedes spiral etched onto the viewfinder. When the spiral touches the star you can read the second value, established by how far the ring has been rotated.

If you’ve ever seen the Lunar Module in person, your first impression might be to giggle a bit at how crude it is. The truth is that much of that crudeness was hard fought to achieve. They needed the simplest, lightest, and most reliable assembly the world had ever constructed. As [Bill Hammack] states at the end of the video, breaking the complicated tool usually used into two simple dials is an amazing engineering achievement.

Continue reading “Apollo: The Alignment Optical Telescope”

Bombing The Sky For The Sake Of Radio

If you are familiar with radio propagation you’ll know that radio waves do not naturally bend around the earth. Like light and indeed all electromagnetic radiation if they are given a free space they will travel in a straight line.

At very high frequencies this means that in normal circumstances once a receiver moves over the horizon from a transmitter that’s it, you’re out of range and there can be no communication. But at lower frequencies this is not the case. As you move through the lower end of the VHF into the HF (Short Wave) portion of the spectrum and below, the radio signal routinely travels far further than the horizon, and at the lower HF frequencies it starts to reach other continents, even as far as the other side of the world.

Of course, we haven’t changed the Laws Of Physics. Mr. Scott’s famous maxim still stands. Radio waves at these frequencies are being reflected, from ionised portions of the atmosphere and from the ground, sometimes in multiple “hops”. The science of this mechanism has been the subject of over a hundred years of exploration and will no doubt be for hundreds more, for the atmosphere is an unreliable boiling soup of gasses rather than a predictable mirror for your radio waves.

Radio amateurs have turned pushing the atmosphere to its limits into a fine art, but what if you would prefer to be able to rely on it? The US military has an interest in reliable HF communications as well as in evening out the effects of solar wind on the ionisation of the atmosphere, and has announced a research program involving bombing the upper atmosphere with plasma launched from cubesats. Metal ions will be created from both chemical reactions and by small explosions, and their results on the atmosphere will be studied.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the upper atmosphere has been ionised in military experiments. Both the USA and the USSR exploded nuclear weapons  at these altitudes before the cessation of atmospheric nuclear testing, and more recently have directed high power radio waves with the aim of ionising the upper atmosphere. You may have heard of the USA’s HAARP project in Alaska, but Russia’s Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility near Nizhniy Novgorod has been used for similar work. It remains to be seen whether these latest experiments will meet with success, but we’re sure they won’t be the last of their kind.

We’ve looked at radio propagation in the past with this handy primer, and we’ve also featured a military use of atmospheric reflection with over-the-horizon radar.

Fishbowl Starfish Prime upper atmosphere nuclear test image via Los Alamos National Laboratory. As an image created by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of their official duties this image is in the public domain.